Film Studies: Winning an Oscar? Priceless. (well, actually that depends...)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If you watch the Oscars show you know that every year, more or less, 50 of the little men are given out. No, there aren't 50 Oscar categories, but sometimes there are a lot of winners in some of those teamwork categories, and everyone gets a statuette. So where do they go? After 77 years with an average of 30 hand-outs a year (there weren't always as many categories), where are the 2,210 Oscars sleeping tonight? Some of the stories are better than the plots that won statuettes in the first place.

You could easily miss the little guy in a crowd. He's only 13-and-a-half inches tall; he doesn't weigh nine pounds; and no matter the magic attached to him, and the money spent to lay hands on him, he's just tin and antimony with four coats of lacquer - copper, nickel, silver and gold. Manufacturing cost? Not too much over £60. Market value? The stuff of dreams.

I've handled an Oscar. I was in Mike Medavoy's office once when he ran Orion and he let me hold it for a minute - it was probably the Best Picture Oscar for Amadeus. It's heavier than you'd think - a lot of winners have had that surprise - and I'm amazed that over the years we haven't had a Sunset Boulevard in which... well, Norma Desmond shooting Joe Gillis was all very well, but suppose she had slugged him with her own Oscar. Imagine the last shot of the film is the statuette with blood running off its faceless head.

Thinking of Billy Wilder reminds me of being in his office off Rodeo Drive and there they were, six in a row, on a shelf behind him, Wilder as unconcerned as the proprietor of a knick-knack store. Those would have been Best Director for The Lost Weekend and The Apartment, Best Screenplay for The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment. That's five. What was the sixth? Of course , Best Picture for The Apartment. But then who had the one for The Lost Weekend getting Best Picture? That's right: it was Charles Brackett, who was solo producer on that picture. Which leaves you wondering whether Wilder might have had a pang when his count always stopped at six. Little? You have to imagine Wilder huffing and puffing that there wasn't a damn thing for Double Indemnity or Some Like It Hot. It was a long shelf in his office, with room for more.

Where are those Wilder Oscars now? That day I met him, I went back to his apartment and he showed me his art collection - superb, with terrific stories on how he acquired every picture. Well, he sold that off a few years later. But would he have sold his Oscars? No, of course not, I'm sure they're with his widow, Audrey, who is still alive. But when she goes, what happens to the tin and antimony?

You see, there are odd myths and superstitions over the Oscars. Billy Wilder had masterpieces by Balthus and Picasso and no one blinked an eye when he exercised his right to sell them - except at the massive revenue they raised, with huge profits, after he had picked up so much just after the war when art dealers and artists were hungry. But the Academy takes a lofty line on the statuettes - they are awarded by your peers and by the community of film-makers, and they are not to be sold off, please, if you fall on hard times.

And yet, we know that the professional magician, David Copperfield, recently bought the Best Director Oscar that went to Michael Curtiz for Casablanca for nearly £150,000. You can see how that might have happened. Curtiz was a top-rank director, with a high salary. He made pictures we love - not just Casablanca, but Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy and White Christmas. But when he died in 1962, he was 74 and he had had expensive tastes, and he probably didn't earn residuals on one of his pictures. He was paid a contract fee, and 50 years later with Casablanca still earning on DVD Curtiz and his estate got not a penny. So maybe the guy was broke. Or maybe his kids were pinched. And so, quietly, to a private collector, the Oscar went on the market. It's a movie scene: an old man who opens his raincoat to reveal the famous statue - there's a fight over the price - the old man sighs. His glory changes hands.

That's not the worst of it. Michael Jackson bought the Best Picture Oscar won by Gone With the Wind in 1999 for £900,000. It is probably the case that no movie has earned more money, not if you count the value of the money in the year it was paid. I know how that Oscar got to Jackson and I'm not talking about it, because it's too shaming and sad, and too filled with the bitter-sweet sense of how glory faded in the picture business.

The Academy begs people not to cash in. It has a way of coming up with purchasers who will, in turn, ensure a dignified preservation for the statuette. Steven Spielberg has laid out a lot of money over the years to protect the little man's dignity. But there are winners who grow old, sick, lonely and forgetful. There are Oscars that have been lost, and others quietly spirited away by nurses and caretakers. You could conjure up a pretty story about the odd circle in which an Oscar changes hands, and you wouldn't really be surprised if it leads to violence, finally, as if it were the Maltese Falcon.

Here's a story that says more than is comfortable. Orson Welles won an Oscar (his only one) for the script of Citizen Kane. Years later, he was usually broke and still desperately trying to make films. He had an acolyte and a cameraman, Gary Graver, who helped him. And there were times when Graver went unpaid. So Orson gave him the Oscar - so Graver said. And then, after Welles' death, one of his daughters, Beatrice, sued Graver for the statuette. She won her case after years of haggling - and she auctioned the Oscar to have money for animals right causes, she said.

The Academy can't win, and in a free market I don't think it has the right to win. And the sordid stories are valuable in another way - they let us see the tough world in which the Oscars were won.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Comments